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New Zealand Institute of Architects









A concert hall in Los Angeles

This essay by Brian Sanghyun Park was the winner in the Secondary School category of the 2018 Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing.

Brian Sanghyun Park, a grade 11 student at Seoul International School, submitted a lively account of visiting Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Well into day three of our family trip through Los Angeles, I was sitting in the back seat of the minivan, bored, baking in the midday heat, and bickering with my brother. “And now we’re going to a classical music concert!” gushed my mother. I rolled my eyes. I had no interest in joining a room full of snobs to listen to the irrelevant, ossified screeching of violin noises from three centuries ago. As we exited the car, I launched into a petulant remark about the extreme heat, but something I saw – something either from an undiscovered dimension or from the distant future – stopped me mid-sentence. “That,” my mum said, “is where we’re going.”

Walking towards Walt Disney Concert Hall was a peculiar experience: my sheer bewilderment compelled me to move closer and closer. The sweeping curves appeared as an array of steel-clad boat sails bulging impossibly in all directions. The structure seemed to be nothing but the most basic elements of visual arts: shapes, lines and light. The intense geometrical steel shapes were unlike anything in the vicinity and offered no hints as to the building’s functional purpose. On later reflection, I saw the building as the embodiment of pure deconstruction, but my initial reactions were solely sensations: confusion; intense curiosity; and then jaw-dropping awe.

On the approach to the building, the sleek exterior grounds and stairs were white, like a dull porcelain, with steel railings complementing the building façade. This contributed to the overall otherworldly feel, yet also left me feeling a few degrees cooler. By this point, I was fully engrossed in experiencing this building. The prospect of venturing inside – to watch a classical music concert or to do anything else at all – had become absolutely thrilling.

In sharp contrast to the visually stunning exterior, the foyer invoked feelings of warmth, familiarity and comfort. The dominant material is wood, which has a rich brown colour, and a rich and textured carpeting element extends the welcoming character. One element I noted was the intentional use of light, which interacts with curves and reflections to add to the fluidness of the building’s design. The feeling I had walking in there was the complete opposite of what I’d have expected from a building meant for classical music; far from evoking elitism, the hall felt warm and welcoming. It felt like a place for all sorts of people, somewhere I wouldn’t feel awkward or intimidated if a Hollywood celebrity sat right next to me.

After walking around the hall, we entered the auditorium. It’s massive but friendly, sharing the elements and materials of the other parts of the interior. The organ, however, is incredibly idiosyncratic. It struck me as resembling many masts on a sailing ship. The deconstructed lines evoked the building’s exterior but, rendered entirely in wood and soft textures, together seem like a gentle full stop responding to the curious question posed by the exterior.

The concert itself was a short organ recital that felt magical. The scale of the sound was immense, filling the huge space effortlessly due to the hall’s well-conceived acoustics. Back in the minivan, my mind raced with sensations from the Hall. I wasn’t able to make much sense of them at the time. Two years later, sensations have given way to thoughts. The space completely recontextualised classical music for me. It made me appreciate the challenge faced by both classical music aficionados and lovers of fine art today. Both art forms often repel newcomers, who can feel distant from the forms, or otherwise reluctant to engage in something that feels so ostentatiously aristocratic. The genius of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall is that its exterior is so other-worldly that it turns curiosity into a strong force of physics, drawing us inside. When we are captivated by the building’s spell, we forget the size of our bank accounts. We forget about our preconceptions about classical music. Once inside, we feel welcome, and our ears and hearts are open.


Read this essay and nine others in 10 Stories: Writing About Architecture / 4 available for $15 + postage in the NZIA shop